With all of the drama that has filled the MLB season, one thing remains unchanged. The key to winning in the Fall is pitching. Pitching at every point in the game is critical to success and I will rank the top five pitching staffs that will get the job done in September and beyond.
1. Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim (or whatever the hell they call themselves now)
Lackey and Weaver are the poster boys for this pitching squad, and rightfully so. K-Rod, who already broke Bobby Thigpens' single-season save record of 57, will end up with around 65 saves by the end of the regular season.
Only the Rays can even smell them with 47 saves or their own. Santana and Saunders get the job done, even with an injured Escobar. Don't forget about Scot Shields, probably one of the most consistent middle relievers in the game.
They clinched the AL West with nearly a month left to play. Is any more discussion necessary? Hate the name, hate the team, or both. It doesn't really matter because they are clearly the best.
2. Chicago Cubs
If you didn't see, hear or smell about Zambrano's no-no the other day; you haven't been paying much attention to baseball. Not only does this guy throw some serious heat, the man can swing the bat; a factor that often hastily overlooked. Yea, the guy has issues with his temper, but hasn't been involved with much of anything since the break.
Dempster and Lily are strikeout machines. The relief pitchers have been shaky, but consistent enough to win games. Starter turned closer Kerry Wood can definitely close out games with the best of them. And with Geovany Soto behind the plate, the NL Central will fall into the Cubbies' lap.
The Cubbies have given up the fewest hits while recording the most strikeouts in the entire league. Opponents are only batting .240 against them, another league best.
3. Los Angeles Dodgers
Along with the Angels, the Dodgers make the Greater Los Angeles area a hotbed for pitching. Let's start with Derek Lowe and the newly returned Brad Penny. Both can be considered as the ace for the team. Lowe is a sinker-ball pitcher with a minuscule ERA and Penny is just an all around machine.
Greg Maddux should be a factor, but at his age he can be exploited too easily. Already known as a pitcher who lacks in the velocity department, his age can only make it worse. Luckily, he still has his steadfast control and should prove valuable in post-season play.
Billingsley can get hot and stay hot. So can Hiroki Kuroda, with all of his innings of perfect work. Big Jon Broxton has emerged as a powerful closer with Takashi Saito injured. His size and pitch velocity will definitely make even the most experienced batter think twice. A veteran Chan Ho Park has returned to the squad and has been reminiscent of his old self. Last, but not least, is Joe Beimel. The guy eats left-handed batters for breakfast with some base runners to wash it all down.
The Dodgers are inching ever-closer to the pennant, and its because of pitching. Not Manny. Okay, maybe just a little bit of Manny.
4. Tampa Bay Rays & Boston Red Sox
The two teams are in a dead heat for the AL East, and the other will most certainly be the Wild Card. Both teams are nearly identical in every statistical category. The Rays have a slight edge in all of them, except for strikeouts and shutouts.
The Rays have had a hot bat since the beginning of the 2007 season, maybe even before that. Their missing link was pitching, and this year things got much more interesting in South Beach (except for Tropicana Field itself). The entire starting rotation was 26 or younger when the season started. Even with injuries to their star players like Crawford and Longoria, the Rays' pitching held it together.
Garza, Shields, and Kazmir all sport ERAs in the mid threes and have a WHIP of 1.5 or lower. The Rays have a an array of middle relievers who share the workload and give up very few runs. The only question is an aging Troy Percival. The closer is critical, particularly late into the season. He's definitely got the experience, but does he have enough body to finish the job?
The Red Sox have always been a team that is just obsessed with pitching, whether it's high prices veterans or products of their own farm system. Their pitching was in question near mid-season, mostly due to the success of the Rays.
Tim Wakefield has a less than spectacular record, but he's always good for some strikeouts and grounders, not to mention the knuckler. Matsusaka sports an ERA of just under three and has 17 wins in just 19 decisions. A young Jon Lester has an ERA of just over thre and has nearly 150 strikeouts. Beckett is giving up more runs than he would like, but he (like the rest of the Boston staff) can throw strikes and get strikeouts.
Okajima and Lopez are the standout middle relievers. They set the stage for Jonathan Papelbon, who has been having a phenomenal year. His WHIP is under one and he has only given up 15 earned runs all season.
5. Toronto Blue Jays
Staying in the AL East, we visit our neighbors to the north. After the Expos became the Nationals, they are the only remaining team in Canada. But they are not out of touch with baseball. They sit third in the AL East, but would be competitive in most other divisions. They would be leading the NL West by two games, but then again who wouldn't. The Jays are destined for an early break, but their pitching has been anything but mundane. They sport the lowest ERA in the league at 3.53 and their starters have recorded more complete games than any other team.
Burnett and Halladay lead the starting rotation with more than 400 combined strikeouts. Accardo's early exit certainly didn't help the bullpen, but BJ Ryan stepped in with respectable numbers. It appears that Jesse Carlson has really come into a groove as their holder. His ERA is just under two and his WHIP is just over one. He's also got 53 K's in just about 55 innings. He is a rookie sleeper and we will probably see much more of him next year.
Too bad the Rays and BoSox are so good this year. The Jays might have had a chance had the situation been different. It looks like they'll sit back and enjoy the playoffs just like the rest of us.
So you got six teams instead of five; two NL teams and four from the AL (including three from the East).
The BoSox and the Rays were too close to separate, but I guess October will tell us which is better. I know many will not agree with Toronto being in the top five, but their numbers cannot be ignored. I am open for comments, questions and suggestions. Feel free to post away.
Edit (9/18/2008, 5 PM)
So, there have been many of you commenting on how the Jays should be number one on the list. Although there was some clown, who shall not be named, who thought the Jays didn't even belong on the list. My sincere apologies for thinking that many would not show them much respect. Statistics dictate that they and the Cubs should be the top two, however I used more than just pitching stats to come to my decisions. I firmly believe that pitching is the ultimate factor that decides wins and losses, regardless of the offense. Most of the time, pitching can compensate for that on any respectable team. Hence, I think that ranking the Jays at the bottom of my list was justified.
Secondly, statistics do not account for the intangibles, mainly the "clutch" factor. ERA, WHIP, strikeouts, etc. do not account for how well a pitcher does in key situations. It does not indicate the composure, ball control, pitch selection and overall pitching strategy of any single player or team.
Lastly, this is a very short list where many decisions were made on personal opinion. Both, total season production and that within the last few months (mainly August and September) were considered. Had the list been longer I would have likely included the White Sox, Athletics, Mets, Brewers and possibly the Astros, Reds and the Phillies.
I am no baseball guru; just a man who enjoys baseball, especially pitching.